Prosal Growth Spurts: Musings about Outlines and the Writing Process

Prosal Growth Spurts

Finishing an outline is like a miniature version of finishing a novel: the satisfaction of the final word count, the relief and surrealism of penning the last line, the excitement of finally being able to begin the actual novel. For those who outline more sparsely, or who outline as they go, these feelings are likely diminished, but perhaps felt in their own quiet way. It is not unlike the completion of any serious, important task. But with writing, there is always the knowledge that revision and editing looms on the horizon, and I’ve found that outlines are no different. This may seem curious—why edit an outline, if you’ve moved on to writing a novel? Why not simply write the changes into the novel? Some might even say, isn’t it the entire point of an outline to be rigid and structured? While outlines are for structure and guidance, like a map with the route outlined in red, I’ve come to realize that outlines also serve as their own rough drafts. My first revision of my WIP was not the pages and pages of prose I’ve already penned, but the pages and pages of bullet points and headings that I pieced together with care, where I stepped back and analyzed and filled in holes long before typing “Part One, Chapter One.” And, like all other rough drafts, my outline has been edited multiple times (indeed, probably more than three, although by now I can’t recall) as I’ve simultaneously been writing the “real” draft. It’s not something I’ve experienced before and it has, in a way, surprised me.

For all my talk of loving to outline, I never truly finished a detailed outline for a novel before this current one. A much earlier draft for the concept of this story (can it even be called the first draft? It shares the same title, the same general world, the same character names, but so much has changed) had an accompanying outline, but it was more of a “write as you go” ordeal—I figured out the first half of the novel, wrote it, and then pieced together a logical, albeit more sparse, outline of what followed once I reached the point of necessity. For past novels, the outlines have been even looser, and for past short stories, I’ve never outlined them at all. The closest I’ve come to a complete outline was for nonfiction essays during years of schooling. But my idea of outlining has also changed—as I said, I’ve come to view them less as separate entities and more of the earliest rough drafts a writer can create. Perhaps it’s the part of me that loves efficient systems, or simply because my novels are long and filled to their brims, but the idea of bypassing the pain of writing one or two or three rough drafts in detailed prose by creating shorthand versions is such a relief. So why hadn’t it dawned on me that my outline would be subject to as many revisions and forms as a traditional draft would be?

I don’t consider the revisions a pain, any more than I consider editing prose a pain. If I want a final product that reaches its full potential, then I must be willing to undertake the entirety of the work required to reach that point. What it has made me consider is how writers so often forget that writing “structures” exist to serve the user. They are tools to aid in organization, conceptualization, development, execution, and precision. This means, then, that any writing tool that isn’t helping you further your stories should be traded in or modified for a tool that will help. That is why my outlines have been edited and rearranged and rewritten so many times (I’m only one-fourth of the way through this draft, so I imagine there are many more edits to come)—the story has changed and developed as I’ve written, so the structure needs to likewise grow and shift to accommodate. Think of it as a prosal growth spurt. As children, all systems of our body shift and grow as we age and mature, sometimes giving us new abilities, sometimes causing discomfort, sometimes resulting in lanky limbs. Stories grow in a similar fashion, sometimes in ways we view as disproportionate, sometimes to our chagrin because it suddenly seems so much more difficult, sometimes to our elation because things begin making sense. An outline that doesn’t also grow with the story will prove to be a detriment rather than a source of guidance, and if that’s the case, what’s the point?

I’m always a proponent of outlining, even if it only serves as your first rough draft or an informal way of organizing your storytelling ideas. But with that endorsement comes the reiteration that outlines are there to help you write and to help your story develop. If a traditional model like bullet point lists doesn’t work for you, test other methods and adapt them to flow with how your mind works. The point isn’t to create a manual that you must follow in spite of the characters and plot, but to lend structure, logic, and completeness to the story elements. And, in fact, there’s joy to be found in adapting the outline as you go—there can be as many epiphany moments when assessing your outline as there are when you finally write a piece of dialogue or describe a favorite setting. Aren’t those some of the best parts of being an author?

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